Date: April 21, 2011

Title: The Trans-en-Provence UFO Case

Podcaster: Jean-Michel Abrassart

Links: “Scepticisme scientifique: Le balado de la Science et de la Raison,” a Skeptical podcast (in French).

Description: In this episode, Belgian skeptic Jean-Michel Abrassart talks about a very famous French ufological case: Trans-en-Provence.

Bio: Jean Michel Abrassart is one of the co-hosts of the skeptical podcast (in French): « Scepticisme scientifique: Le balado de la Science et de la Raison ». He has a master in psychology and another one in philosophy. He is the author of “La croyance au paranormal: Facteurs prédispositionnels et situationnels” (éditions universitaires européennes), a book about the psychology of paranormal belief.

Sponsor: This episode of “365 Days of Astronomy” is sponsored by — no one. We still need sponsors for many days in 2010, so please consider sponsoring a day or two. Just click on the “Donate” button on the lower left side of this webpage, or contact us at


Hello! My name is Jean-Michel Abrassart. (I’m) a Belgian skeptic with a keen interest in the UFO phenomena. I’d like to talk to you about a famous case from France, called the Trans-en-Provence case. In France there is an official UFO group. When that group was founded, first it was called “GEPAN”, then “SEPRA”, then “GEIPAN”. It belongs to the “Centre national d’études spatiales” or CNES, which is in fact like NASA but for France. So there is an official UFO department in the CNES. That group is unfortunately far from being skeptical…

The Trans-en-Provence case happened in January of 1981 and the story goes like this: Renato Nicolaï, who is (at the time) a 52 years old immigrant, is working in his garden. While he’s working in his garden, around 5 o’clock in the afternoon, he sees a UFO coming and landing, very quickly, in his garden. He said that the object was something like around 40 meters from him. He talks to his wife about it, but she doesn’t believe him. He shows her some traces in his garden, traces that he said were made by the landing of the UFO. After that, his wife believes him, talks to their neighbors and explains to them what happened. Those neighbors go to the gendarmerie, kind of the cops in France. Soon after that the cops come and they have to follow a procedure made by the CNES. They come and they take samples around that alleged trace. The GEPAN group was supposed to come very shortly (after that): according to their methodology they should be able to come within two days. Right away, there is a problem because they only came around forty days later, which is way too late.

At first, of course, it’s a very interesting story and it has been made famous because of the traces. Those are like “proof” that a UFO landed, according to UFO-believers. Also the cops do their jobs, do the sampling and send them to the GEPAN for testing. So they do a good job. There are two points that are worth noticing. The fist one is: it’s not the witness who went to call the cops, it’s the neighbors after his wife talked to them. It’s kind of strange. The witness was cornered. He had to talk to the cops when they came about that subject. That’s the first point. The second point is of course that the GEPAN came way too late, like more than 40 days later. Anyway, some analysis were made by a man called Michel Bounias and at that time (still now) in France there is a big fashion in UFO circles to consider that UFOs are propelled with magnetohydrodynamics (MHD). He finds some anomalies in the sample and says that those anomalies have been caused by the UFO landing, and by the MHD propelling the UFO.

The only problem is that recently some French skeptics have made some work on that case, trying to show that the conclusion made by the GEPAN were not as sound as they claimed. Because of course in their report they say that it’s a rock solid case, that it shows that really an alien spaceship landed in France. The skeptics, after examining the case, realized that the traces are in fact in a path. You can actually see on the pictures that some cars came and parked. Based on that, they realized that the witness, Renato Nicolaï, made some work in the garden. And for that he had some trucks coming and parking, because he was making some constructions in his garden. It shows that all those details have not been checked properly by the GEPAN.

Skeptics now have this alternative explanation for this case. We think that what happens was that Renato Nicolaï wanted to make a joke – simply because he’s an immigrant, he doesn’t speak French properly, so he has a low social status. He wants to make a joke to his wife. He comes to his wife and says: “I saw that UFO”, but she doesn’t believe him. He has a back-up plan: he says “Oh, you don’t believe me, but there are some traces in the ground that proof (what I’m saying)”. Because he had noticed those traces in his garden after he did his work, he says: “You see those traces: that’s the landing track of that UFO!” And then she believes him and goes to the neighbors, and the neighbors go to the cops, and then the cops showed up. And, well, he’s stuck with his story! He can’t really say: “Oh, it was just a joke!” because his friends will not forgive him for making such a joke. He just tells the same story again, because he’s like stuck in that situation. And of course, those analysis made by Michel Bounias, who was a fringe researcher in ufology and other similar subjects, are not valid. Those traces were just made by cars or trucks parking in the garden.

Here you go: that’s a quick overview of the Trans-en-Provence case in France. This was your host for the day, Jean-Michel Abrassart. Skeptically yours.

End of podcast:

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